On Saturday, Aug. 19, white supremacy came to Boston in the form of around 100 conservative activists, among them white nationalists, holding a “Free Speech Rally” in Boston Common. Around 40,000 Bostonians responded. Under the shadow of the events in Charlottesville, Va., we came marching to demonstrate that racism has no home in Boston.
The feeling in the Common following the alt-right retreat was electric. Hearing that the right-wing demonstrators were running away under police protection, the crowd roared, chanting, “Whose Common? Our Common!”
In that moment, everyone on our side cherished a small victory after eight months of a presidency that has felt like eight years. Reports the following day that the alt-right canceled 67 rallies nationwide because of our emphatic showing in Boston further boosted morale, and served as evidence that mass mobilization can still change the world in a meaningful way.
This wasn’t the first time members of the alt-right emerged in Boston, though.
In May, there was another rally in the Common, planned by the same group that organized the failed rally in August. Unlike the massive showing in August, only around 300 people came out that day—about 150 on each side.
Honestly, even though it was tense, the whole thing felt a little pathetic, just as ridiculous as the nearby LARPers swinging foam swords at each other. Both sides seemed as though they were role-playing, from the pathetically pale 4chan group with their Kekistan flags (green flags that are designed to look like swastikas), to the fully decked-out militiamen complete with fatigues, combat sunglasses on a cloudy day, and a swagger that only comes when one is wielding an assault rifle.
Then there were us: a hodgepodge of Boston leftists that included everyone from nervous young socialists like me who were at their first confrontational rally, to the seven Antifa members dressed head-to-toe in black who naively overestimated their own turnout and had to put a large pile of red flags on wooden sticks to the side.
The rally quickly devolved into a silly shouting match, where the other side would yell something like “Build that wall!” and then we would shout back something like “No Ban! No Wall!” while the 20 police officers or so in between us looked on in boredom. People would walk past and film the spectacle for their Snapchat friends, and then continue on their way, slightly bemused by the loons on both sides of the park.
Eventually we all left (including the LARPers), and both sides claimed victory on their social media accounts.
As it turns out, at least one of the attendees of the May rally was in attendance at the bloody rally in Charlottesville (a couple Bostonians were also at Charlottesville, though it’s unclear whether they attended the May rally).
The same alt-right members that had appeared so feeble in Boston now take on a new hue. Their edginess had seemed so contrived, so carefully manicured, like it was their ironic armor against a world they thought had rejected them. Now, their personas are not just a facade, but emblematic of white supremacy and the potential for cold-blooded murder.
Have no doubt about it, the car that killed Heather Heyer was fueled by the alt-right’s ideology. Some sites have reported that organizers of Charlottesville even discussed using cars to run over protesters weeks beforehand. Running over protesters has been an alt-right battle cry for a while now. James Alex Fields, Jr., the driver of the car, had a Facebook that was full of Pepe memes, overtly Nazi propaganda, and a cover photo of President Donald Trump sitting on a decadent throne.
Not all members of the alt-right are radical enough to carry out such an attack, but it’s hard to imagine Fields would have been radicalized to terrorism without the influence of his safe haven of online white supremacists.
White supremacists in the streets are exponentially more dangerous than on the internet. This might sound obvious, but it’s easy to delude ourselves into thinking that an active online community doesn’t pose a grave threat to society behind the barrier of a screen. The tragedy in Charlottesville demonstrated the consequences of when online radicals such as Fields turn their violent words and memes into action.
There’s a lot we can learn from the two times Boston has had to stand up to white supremacy in the past six months.
Seemingly idiotic shows of performative politics like we saw in May are no laughing matter. Remember how many laughed at Trump when he announced his candidacy, and how many similarly laughed off the alt-right as internet weirdos? No one is laughing now. Irony has become reality.
It is important to remember, though, that white supremacy already existed in Boston far before any alt-right wackos came to the city.
According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the average white family in Boston owns $247,500 in wealth, while the average black family in Boston owns just $8.
The tangible implications of the ideology of white supremacy are evident in this staggering material disparity. They’re present in the extremely segregated Boston Public Schools system, where 86 percent of public school students are students of color even though people of color constitute under 50 percent of Boston’s population. They’re obvious in a black incarceration rate that is three times the black demographic percentage in Massachusetts.
White supremacy didn’t need to come to Boston. It was already here.
Just as most people ignored the alt-right before, so too we ignore systemic white supremacy as “just the way it is.” What if Bostonians responded to many of the inequalities in our city the same way we responded to the alt-right in August?
What would happen if those 40,000 marched against the rapid gentrification of Roxbury? Or if they organized against the unjust practice of stop and frisk in Massachusetts? Or came together to support striking service workers fighting for a $15 minimum wage?
The alt-right is the manifestation of the white supremacy that still exists in Boston. White supremacist ideology is not an aberration, but the logical result of our racist past, the spectre of our historical sins coming back to haunt us. We can look in the mirror and respond, or we can turn away and laugh it off.
The rally in August was a start to combating racism in Boston, but lasting change takes passion and patience, and the fight is far from over. Wherever the idea of white supremacy persists, we need to continually choose to confront it.
Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor